Truth and Justice: Graeme Wonders When Superman Started Living In The Real World

July 29, 2015


Beyond the headline-grabbing “Lois Lane finds out!” element of Superman #42, there’s something else very interesting going on under the covers of Gene Yang’s second issue as writer; something that speaks to the (wonderful, still highly recommended) issue of Action Comics that came out this month, in an unexpected way. Namely, when did Superman turn into what the kids would call a social justice warrior?

For those who haven’t had a chance to read Superman this week yet, here’s the basic plot: Superman, Lois and Jimmy are led to the headquarters of Hordr — yes, like Tumblr — a “tech company” that’s all about buying and selling information, and blackmailing people into doing its bidding. Those who want to read a strange, accidental parallel with the Gawker-being-complicit-in-blackmailing-Condé-Nast’s-CFO thing, feel free, but it gets odder: Hordr is essentially crime syndicate Google. There’s even a Hordr bus that picks employees up on the streets of Metropolis before flying them into the “campus in the clouds,” the Hordr_plex, where the corporate culture is all free coffees from floating coffee carts and happy employees promising to change the world.

This, as I said, follows on from the police brutality issue of Action earlier this month, with cops purposefully trying to turn a peaceful protest into a riot, going so far as to use tear gas to incite the violence they clearly want. Somewhere along the way, Superman has started to be a character whose adventures can be — are being — used to make social commentary, to varying degees, about the world around us.

Of course, Grant Morrison would excitedly tell us that he’s always had that in his DNA, and that it goes back to the earliest incarnations of the character. That’s true, to an extent; the first Superman stories definitely saw him as more of a force for change against corrupt institutions, but the character himself wasn’t really actively used to interact with the real world until the 1940s radio show, and honestly, has rarely done so since.

Maybe that’s because, traditionally, Superman has been too powerful to do so — considering everything he was able to do in the past, the idea of him dealing with real life injustices could easily have read as patronizing and insincere, not to mention potentially, accidentally legitimizing to the oppressors (Why didn’t Superman just dismantle Apartheid, for example? Wasn’t that unjust enough for him?) — whereas now, the newly-depowered Superman makes things more of a fair fight, perhaps.

Or maybe it’s that Yang and Action writer Greg Pak, neither of whom get to enjoy the white privilege of previous Superman writers, feel that the character is super-equipped (Pun only slightly intended) to talk about things that are strange, unusual and problematic with “the American way” because he stands apart from the societal norm in some way; finally, someone using the “strange visitor” part of the mythos for the forces of good!

Whatever the reason, both Superman and Action Comics currently feel exciting, entertaining and fresh in a way they haven’t done in a long time — yes, even including the Morrison Action issues, I’d argue. It helps that John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson and Dean White are killing the visuals on Superman, with Aaron Kuder and Tomeu Moray doing the same on Action, of course, but really: there’s something in the writing of these books that makes them seem like essential reads for those who like superheroes right now. I mean, come on: Google Blackmail.


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4 comments on “Truth and Justice: Graeme Wonders When Superman Started Living In The Real World

  1. This sounds very intriguing, Graeme. I only read the first issue of the Johns-Romita Jr. run and while I loved it and was blown away seeing JR Jr. playing in DC’s sandbox, I lost track of it after that. I was thiiiiiiiis close to picking up the Justice League-centric issue that JR Jr. wrote and illustrated, but the $3.99 price tag has been putting me off a lot of new books lately.

    But now that Yang is on the book….oh I’m mighty tempted to check this out. He’s a talent, for sure. And I love the idea of making Superman more relevant than he’s been in a good long time. The character deserves that, no question. And what I’ve seen of JR Jr.’s art on recent issues is just outstanding. I thought seeing him work on Superman, and other DC characters, would lose it’s novelty or excitement for me over time. Nope! I’m only more intrigued. That image up above is just beautiful. I’m excited at the prospect of Yang and JR Jr having a good long run on this book (so I can enjoy several trades’ worth of storylines from them in time).

  2. “Maybe that’s because, traditionally, Superman has been too powerful to do so…”

    I think there’s another answer to this question: maybe it’s because, traditionally, Superman has been owned by companies that don’t want controversy to alienate potential readers. That was why Jack Liebowitz forced Siegel and Shuster to walk back their New Deal crusader in the early 40s and that’s why he’s rarely taken a stand on hot-button issues since.

    I don’t know how long Yang and Pak will have to break from convention; then again, I don’t know if they’ve really broken from it in the first place. “Tech companies shouldn’t blackmail people” or “police shouldn’t beat up nice people who are just standing around in the street because they love Superman so much” doesn’t sound like brave social commentary so much as ripped-from-the-headlines window dressing. Where’s the risk?

  3. James Woodward Jul 30, 2015

    I’m not currently reading the Superman titles, but after reading this I feel maybe I should be. It’s interesting you name check Grant Morrison more than once, because when I read his Action #1 I was really excited to read what I thought he had set out there: a young social crusader man-of-the-people Superman. But of course Morrison couldn’t focus on that and had to do his “Superman is all of these things and here’s a few more” thing that he had to some extent done in All-Star, but even there with a little more focus. Was it the “Superman Returns” movie that first explicitly dropped the “American Way” from the “Truth, Justice and…” equation? And it’s pretty much held since then, but if you look at the history of the character as you touched upon then you have to look at that as a cop-out and not a sign of changing times or a desire to make the character more globally friendly. There’s always been things wrong with America, always elements that clash with the ideal of “the American Way” as stated in Superman’s credo, and rooting those elements out, whether they be the mobsters and greedy slumlords of the early comics, or the KKK in the radio show (Wow! Was Superman really responsible for deflating the rise of the KKK? That automatically makes him the greatest superhero of all! And I say that as someone who isn’t particularly a fan) should certainly be as big a part of Superman as fighting supervillains and known “easy” evils like Nazis and such. Clearly your review, albeit brief, was thought provoking, and I apologize if I got a bit didactic there.

  4. Jensen Jul 30, 2015

    Beyond the veneer of social relevancy and tech-speek, I’m not sure I really see the parallel. How specifically is Clark/Superman being a social justice warrior here? From what I’ve seen and from what I understand, SJWs are not particularly concerned with protesting Google and Tumblr, nor do they care about corporations or governments collecting data on citizens. Rather, they are into using technology as a platform to accuse others (rightly or wrongly) of bigotry. How is Superman doing that here? How is Superman vs. Google CEO significantly different from Superman vs. Businessman Lex? Honest question; I haven’t read the comics in question and I don’t the parallel well enough just by reading your article.